Meghalaya: where Women come first and Matrilineal cultures thrive

Many Indian women cry out for equality, but in Meghalaya 

matrilineal cultures thrive with little parallel in the world.

The main features of the Garo tribes are the women. The Garo women are the property owners and there is a custom where the youngest daughter inherits the property from her mother. Unlike other marriages, in this tribe a man shifts to his wife's place after the marriage rituals are over.
The western Garo tribe are also matrilineal. ”The main features of the Garo tribes are the women. The Garo women are the property owners and there is a custom where the youngest daughter inherits the property from her mother. Unlike other marriages, in this tribe a man shifts to his wife’s place after the marriage rituals are over.”

Shillong, India – In a far corner of India, a country where women usually

have to cry out for equality, respect and protection, there’s a state

where women organise society, and everything works better.meMeghalaya – “Home of Clouds” – is picturesque state with its capital Shillong a regional

hub for educationand the trend-setter for the Westernised culture that’s accepted

by most tribes in the country’s northeast.

The two major tribes of Meghalaya, Khasis and Jaintias, are very matrilineal. 

Children take the mother’ssurname, daughters inherit the family property with

the youngest getting the lion’s share, and most

businesses are run by women.

Known as the “Khatduh”, the youngest daughter anchors the family, looking after elderly parents,

giving shelter and care to unmarried brothers and sisters, and watching over property.

The Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Act protects the matrilineal structure.

Some trace the origins of the system to Khasi and Jaintia kings, who preferred to entrust the

household to their queens when they went to battle. This custom has continued to provide

women the pride of place in the tribal society.

A Khasi trader
A Khasi tradeswoman

Matriliny safeguards women from social ostracism when they remarry because their children,

no matter who the father was, would be known by the mother’s clan name. Even if a woman

delivered a child out of wedlock,which is quite common, there is no social stigma attached to the

woman in our society,” says Patricia Mukhim, a national award-winning social activist who

edits the Shillong Times newspaper.

Mukhim says her society will not succumb to the dominant patriarchial system in most of India.

“We have interfaced with several cultures and our women have married people from other Indian

provinces and from outside India. But very few Khasi women have given up their culture,”

says Mukhim. “Most have transmitted the culture to their children born out of wedlock with


Matrilineal culture

Anirban Roy, a Bengali married to a Jaintia woman whom he met as a fellow student in a

veterinary college, says he faced no problem adjusting to the matrilineal culture of his wife’s family.

“Everyone in the wife’s clan made it a point to come and introduce themselves, and invite me to

their houses either for lunch or dinner to know each other better. Whenever we face a problem,

the members of my wife’s clan rushed to our help,” said Roy. “As a groom, I enjoyed great

respect and privilege.”

But some Khasi and Jaintia men complain, and some formed the equivalent

of a “men’s liberation group” called Syngkhong Rympei Thymai (SRT) back in 1990.

“Our men now have no roles as fathers or uncles. Since ancient times, fathers have

been the protector and bread-earner, but this notion is not so much of a reality in our society

now,” says Keith Pariat, SRT’s founder.

Khasi women with children in Shillong [Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/ Al Jazeera]

“In our society, there is applause and celebration when a girl is born, but the birth of a boy is

just taken in the stride,”Pariat says.

Some tribal families have been switching over to patrilieany, where the father assumes leadership

of the family, Pariat says. But he admits such cases are rare.

SRT has only about 3,000 members, but most are silent members who are too nervous to

publicly challenge matrilineal traditions of the Khasi-Jaintia society.

“We hope things will change and we will get a more meaningful role to play in our society.

But we cannot force a change,” says Anthony Kharkhongor, a SRT member.

C Joshua Thomas, regional director of the Indian Council of Social Science Research,

says religious beliefs also help perpetuate the matrilineal system. Thomas is based in Shillong

and has closely watched the tribal societies in Meghalaya in his long career as a social scientist.

“This system will survive because the people zealously guard this system. It has support from

many quarters, including the indigenous religious systems Seng Khasi and also from the mainline

Christian churches both from the Catholics and Protestant orders. The NGOs in Meghalaya also

support this system, ” he says.

Khasi-Jaintia women, meanwhile, say the men have enough of

a role to play in society – if they want to. “Even in our matrilineal society, we treat the fathers

as the head of the family, and they take important family decisions.Men are given due recognition

even in major family decisions,” says Iwbih Nylla Tariang, a female employee with Meghalaya’s animal

husbandry department.

But Tariang is keen that the present matrilineal system stays as is.


Unlike elsewhere in India, we have followed a unique matrilineal society for centuries.

Our society in Meghalaya always gave respect to women. The children taking mother’s family

name is the biggest respect,” she says.


Rape Scandal in Maghalaya

Recent Newspaper headlines refer to a series of horrific rapes in Meghalaya. The national press

took up the reports and they were reprinted round the world. Reporters portrayed Meghalaya

women as uncaring abour rape and that this proved the matrilineal culture was no good.

3 comments..First.. 800 cases in 10 years doesnt seem so many. Second.. Maybe rape gets

denounced more often in Meghalaya, in most parts of India if you admit that you were raped

it maycondemn you to social exclusion (no dowry, ‘damaged goods’ etc), poverty and

maybe death, so women stay quiet and this promotes impunity for rape culture, they get

away with it.   Thirdly.. Meghalaya women say most of the rapists are outsiders..

Another Meghalaya cop sacked for rape – Zee News – India


The social activist Mukhim calls the SRT a “bunch of disgruntled individuals”.

“Khasis, as a whole, do not find any problem with matriliny. It is a small group of urban males

who seem dissatisfied having to live with the wife’s family,” Mukhim says.

“Khasi men were known to be polygamous and marriages are brittle.

Marriage as an institution came about only after Christianity and is practised only among

Christians. Those who follow the indigenous faith, or who are outside the purview of any

religion, still practise cohabitation or living together. So our system works.”

  Khasi Students' Union

In Sept 2013 a general strike in Meghalaya demanded the

‘ILP system’ to stop immigrantsfrom otrher parts of India

swamping the successful local cultures.

In India, where women often become victims of “honour killings” if seen with a male from

another caste, Khasi-Jaintia women enjoy remarkable social mobility and can accompany

any men without taboo. Unlike elsewhere in India where the bride’s family is generally required

to pay a dowry to the groom’s family, the womenof Khasi-Jaintia society do not.

Nor are there any arranged marriages.

rengma woman
rengma woman

Khasi women are enterprising and run small businesses well. In

Shillong’s oldest market, the Lewduh, women operate almost all businesses.

Many Khasi political leaders are apprehensive about outsiders coming

to settle in Meghalaya and marrying local women.

In 2007, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), which

gives the tribes self-governance, declared a policy of encouraging Khasi

women to have more children. Some Khasi mothers who had given birth

to 15 or more offspring were handed out cash rewards. “We have a lot of land

 but migrants from other parts of India and neighbouring Bangladesh are

coming into Meghalaya in some numbers,” says KHADC chief HS Shylla,

justifying cash rewards in a country where the federal government advocates strict family planning.

“We may be swamped by them, like neighbouring Tripura or Assam, if we don’t grow in numbers.”

One crucial area exists, however, where women are not the dominant figures. The Dorbar Shnong

– or the grassroots political institution of the tribes – debars women from holding office and

remains a male-centric institution. “Women would be represented at the Dorbar by male members

of the family such as their husbands, brothers or uncles. These days women attend the Dorbar

but cannot hold office as executive members, and certainly not as the headman,” says Thomas.

INDIA | Monday, 14 January 2013 A Jaintia boy trying to steal his lady's love gaze in their traditional dance
INDIA | Monday, 14 January 2013
A Jaintia boy trying to steal his lady’s love gaze in their traditional dance

The 60-member Meghalaya state assembly also has only four women lawmakers –

an unusual situation in a society where social and economic powers rest with females.

“This is one reason why women in Meghalaya have been uncertain about entering

electoral politics. There is an inherent feeling that politics is a male domain,” says Mukhim.

from Al Jazeera with thanks. Photos added by TheFree

This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.

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Author: thefreeonline

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